Q. What do you understand by Renaissance? What were the factors that led to the rise of Renaissance? [BPSC, 2009]

Q. What do you understand by Renaissance? What were the factors that led to the rise of Renaissance? [BPSC, 2009]


Renaissance is the cultural movement that started in Italy (with Florence identified as the initial home of the Renaissance)  in 15th Century. It then spread to United Kingdom, France, Germany etc. It is one of the most important events in history because it affected every aspect of human life.

The renaissance originated in Italy and spread to other parts of Europe. The movement did not begin overnight. The causes of it lay in the middle ages. Many believe that it started in 1453, when Turks captured Constantinople, The Greek scholars of the city ran away, carrying their texts. They went to Italy and enlightened the people with a sense of inquiry. This was the immediate cause of the renaissance, but ideas were already gaining root. The event hastened the movement.

The literary meaning of the term renaissance is rebirth. The period brought about the revival of interest in Greek and Roman literature and art. The people of the times wanted to revive the culture by adding their own ideas. They felt that ancient Greek and Roman traditions were rich in cultural heritage. The medieval ideas which dominated the society were considered backward and were rejected by the leaders of renaissance e.g. church which controlled the society. Man was a slave in the hands of religion. The renaissance put in a sense of inquiry. Thus there arose rationalism instead of dogmatism.

The main theme of the movement was the ideal of Humanism. It means the development of human personality, regarding man as the centre of activity. Earlier God was the centre of all activities and man was just a creature waiting for salvation. Artists turned attention to draw and sketch human beings.

The movement produced a spirit of curiosity. Man was told not to accept philosophy and theology simply because he was told to. He was told to be curious about all things. He was encouraged to study more about himself and his surroundings. The period encouraged original thinking and study of texts including the Bible. However the emphasis was on revival of secular literature.

It was known that many ancient classics of Greece and Rome were lost in the dark period. The leaders set themselves the task to rediscover, decipher and translate the texts. Thus literature and art was wanted for the sake of art and not for religion.

There is no doubt that the movement was an urban phenomenon. It was the movement of classes and not masses. The leaders were intellectuals. Most of them were from the bourgeoisie class, who had some time to spend on literature and art. Though it’s a fact that the renaissance brought in a new era and changed the entire culture, the changes were not sudden. It was a gradual process. In the height of the movement too, few accepted the changes. However, gradually as the ideas spread to newer lands, they engulfed the entire human kind.

The Renaissance has been described as ending the medieval era and heralding the start of the modern age.

The renaissance originated in Italy and spread to other parts of Europe. The movement did not begin overnight. The causes of it lay in the middle ages. Many believe that it started in 1453, when Turks captured Constantinople, The Greek scholars of the city ran away, carrying their texts. They went to Italy and enlightened the people with a sense of inquiry. This was the immediate cause of the renaissance, but ideas were already gaining root. The event hastened the movement.

The following are the main factors that led to the rise of Renaissance:

Rise of Intellectuals:

An important feature of the middle ages was the rise of literacy. People learnt to read and write Latin and also vernacular languages. Encouragement was provided by a large number of clergy, bureaucrats, lawyers and merchants. They needed some sort of education to carry government activities.Therefore the 14th Century saw the rise of schools.

In Italy even commoners got interested in reading classics. They sent children to higher education. The period saw the emergence of universities at Paris, Naples, Oxford, Cambridge etc. This spread of knowledge created a new approach to thinking and learning.

Reintroduction of Classical Works

While there were classical texts in western Europe at the start of the Renaissance, many had been lost and existed only in the east, in both Christian Constantinople and Muslim states. During the Renaissance many key texts were reintroduced into Europe, whether by merchants taking advantage of the new hunger for old texts, or by scholars who had been invited over to teach. For instance, in 1396 a Chair for teaching Greek was created in Florence. The chosen teacher, Chrysoloras, brought with him a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography from the east. In addition, a huge number of Greek texts and scholars arrived in Europe with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The discovery of the Printing Press:

The earliest printed paper in Europe was in 1454, printed on movable type. In 12th century designs were printed on textiles, but books were written by hand. Therefore the spread of knowledge was slow and costly. Gradually people developed the art of printing in Mainz in Germany. Soon, there was a demand for printed books. Within years, presses were introduced all over Europe. Books were produced quickly and cheaply and in greater quantity. This was a revolution of the time. Printing made the spread of literacy easier. This was welcomed by the renaissance leaders as it greatly contributed to the movement.

Patronage of Rulers, Popes and Nobles:

In the 15th century Italian city states came under the rule of influential families. In other states there was republican form, where ruling classes controlled government e.g. Florence and Venice. They spent a lot in construction and sponsoring artistic and intellectual activities. The Medici family dominated the city state of Florence. They controlled European finances and made the state prosperous. Lorenzo patronised arts. Venice was also a centre of renaissance art, supported by its rulers.

King Francis of France, Henry VIII of England patronised scholars and invited them to the court. Popes encouraged the revival of Greek and Roman classics. Pope Nicholas V, asked for classics, for whatever price. He gathered a band of writers, for the job, of translating and composing texts. Pope Leo X was a lover of classical art and literature and donated funds to patronise activities.

The Crusades:

The Crusades were expeditions of Christians, to reconquer the lost areas from infidels. The first crusade was launched in 1088 by Pope Urban. There were 7 more major and some minor crusades. The purpose was to take back Palestine from the Muslims. It was the land where Christ lived and died.

The Crusades failed in their religious purpose, but brought in great effects in culture and economic life of Europe. They encouraged trade and commerce, which made Italian state prosperous. There was contact with the Arab world. Scholars could bring back many texts which were lost, since the Roman Kingdom ended. They translated Greek and Arab writings. People discovered Aristotle’s classics and discussed his views. This encouraged a new era in learning. This contact with the new world brought in new ideas and gave an impetus to Renaissance.

Similarly, geographical discoveries brought in a change in the outlook of Europeans. They developed a spirit of adventure spirit which encouraged the rise of Renaissance.

Trade and Prosperity:

Since the 11th Century, there developed trade and commercial relations with other areas. Thus there was a changed of economy from agriculture to commece. Secondly due to commerce man shifted to towns from rural areas.

As is said, for any change the basic feature is economic. As long as economic life remained static, there was no Renaissance. As economic life became better there was an upsurge of art and literature. Prosperity was the cause. Trade and prosperity brought leisure.

In agricultural economy man is throughout busy. He has no time and energy to appreciate art. But with the change of economy people got more money, which they could spend on patronising renaissance art and literature.

New Wealth and the Black Death 

In the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death (Plague) swept across Europe, killing perhaps a third of the population. While devastating, some of the survivors found themselves better off financially and socially, with the same wealth spread among fewer people, and better potential for climbing the social ladder. This was especially true in Italy, where social mobility was much greater. While some areas saw struggles between the more competitively positioned workers and their bosses, this ‘new’ wealth was often was spent on display items to reinforce prestige, much like the rulers above them. This also allowed people to patronize Renaissance artists.

Peace and War

Perhaps unusually, periods of both peace and war have been credited with allowing the Renaissance to spread and become a European, then global, phenomenon. For instance, the end of the Hundred Years War between England and factions in France has been credited with allowing Renaissance ideas to penetrate these nations, as thoughts and expenses turned away from conflict. In contrast, the involvement of France in wars within Italy has been credited with aiding the spread of the Renaissance to that nation, as armies and commanders encountered Renaissance ideas in Italy and brought them back home.

Development of Renaissance Humanism

Humanism in the Renaissance period, was an intellectual movement. Renaissance Humanism has been called the earliest expression of the Renaissance, and is described as both a product of the movement and a cause.

Humanists were scholars who studied subjects which would develop man’s personality e.g. literature, philosophy. Old classics contained the subjects, but they were in ancient languages. So the humanists first studied Latin. They went to various libraries to search manuscripts. They collected ancient coins, statues. They were either teachers, or clergymen or tutors of princes.

Humanist thinkers challenged the mindset of both the previously dominant school of scholarly thought, Scholasticism, as well as the church, allowing the new mindsets which underpinned the Renaissance to develop instead.

The Political Situation: The Need for Display and Administration

The Renaissance changes in the style of art, as well as the outlook of artists, needed wealthy patrons to support it, and Renaissance Italy was especially fertile ground. Political changes in the ruling class of Italy shortly before this period had led to the rulers of most of the major city states being “new men” without much of a political history. They attempted to legitimise themselves with conspicuous display, with ostentation, including all forms of art and creativity.

This meant that artists keen to use their new found Renaissance ideas were ably supported and able to produce masterpieces. The demand from new (and old) elites wasn’t just artistic, they also relied upon ideas developed from the Renaissance for their political models. Machiavelli’s infamous guide to rulers – The Prince – is a work of Renaissance political theory.

In addition, the newly developing bureaucracies of Italy, and the rest of Europe, caused a demand for Humanists, because their education was both theoretical and, crucially, practical, equipping them to run the new governments and monarchies, funding their development.